Act ii Stage v

Barrels! Barrels!

“This is ridiculous."

Brock’s complaints had grown more and more frequent as Misty led him through the cold, knee-deep water that was worked somehow out of the lake somewhere below them. A terrified Delia had told her about these tunnels, had explained how to get to Ash through them. Apparently his father had been caught once or twice some years before, and Delia doubted Gary would allow Ash to be held anywhere else. She’d insinuated that it was Gary Oak who was in charge of such things, which made Misty wonder exactly who controlled the Stadium itself. It seemed the Oaks held the actual power while the headMasters merely ran...what, public appearances? The actual Training and the Trainees? Misty was beginning to suspect there was much more going on behind the scenes than she’d ever imagined.

“I mean it, Misty,” Brock continued. “This is absolutely ridiculous. I can’t feel anything below my knees.”

“Well think how Ash feels, then,” she snapped, already on edge after hours of trying and failing to convince Rudi and the headMasters that she wasn’t under any sort of Elemental spell or curse. Exhausted, exasperated, and locked into Rudi’s suite, she had finally called Brock for help. It’d taken a lot of apologies; she knew she should have told him about Ash a long time ago, and didn’t try to make excuses for herself when he’d questioned her about it, miffed. After explaining Ash’s current predicament, however, he’d agreed to help, though he was obviously a little unnerved by everything. Misty didn’t blame him. She’d known Ash for months, and she’d still reacted horribly when she learned what he was.

Brock was silent for a moment, his sloshing footsteps the only indication of his presence behind her. When he spoke again it was in a quiet, pleading voice. “Misty, are you sure we’re doing the right thing here? I mean, this guy is an Elemental. I’m not sure we should just...break him out like this. What makes you think we even can?”

Misty sighed. Her brain felt like it had been pounded into a tiny ball in her head. “I don’t know, Brock, but I need your help. I can’t get him out of here alone.”

“But he’s an Elemental—”

“He’s my friend, Brock. All those stories about Elementals are just—they’re just stories. He’s not evil or demonic or anything like they say he is. He’s just...human.”

“With a Pokémon’s abilities?” Brock protested. “It’s not right.”

Misty thought about her answer before she replied. She'd had plenty of time to mull this over in Rudi's suite. “In the ancient stories they use to say that Pokémon and humans were one. You know, before the War. Remember?”

“Of course.”

“Well, Elementals must be, I dunno, their descendents or something. Why should that make them evil? The stories say that Elementals are demons, or people who sold their souls, or some other nonsense, but after reading those books Ash had in his that I know what he is, I think they meant that Elementals are just the remnants of a society that once was, you know? It makes me question exactly what the War was over, if the winners have twisted everything else about it.”

“But what if they’re not twisted, Misty? What if he really is a demon?”

“Then he still deserves my help,” said Misty firmly. “He’s as good a friend to me as you are, Brock. If you knew him half as well as I do you wouldn’t abandon him either.”

“Well how do you even know this will work? I mean, where the hell are we? And how would Delia Ketchum know anything about where we’re going?”

Misty sighed. “I told you, Brock, she’s his mother. She took this route to get to his father once, a long time ago. Trust her; she knows what she’s doing.”

“So what, Elementalism or whatever is genetic? Misty, none of this makes any sense.”

“I know, Brock! Mew, don’t you think I know? I just found out all this stuff about him yesterday! I’m as confused as you are! But he’s a good guy, and he just doesn’t deserve whatever he’ll get at the hands of Gary and the headMasters. They talked about him like he was subhuman. It was awful.”

“I still don’t know about this,” Brock said dubiously. “But I guess he had plenty of opportunities to hurt you. You sure he won’t like, attack us once we get him out? I mean, assuming we can get him out, don’t you think he’ll be mad that you told me? I mean, look at what telling Rudi did for him.”

Misty’s heart lurched. Rudi. He’d been such a stubborn ass about the whole thing. Misguided overprotection at its worst.

“I think he’ll understand,” Misty replied after a moment. “At least, I hope he will. You’re not like Rudi.”

Brock didn’t respond. Misty paused and looked at him questioningly when she felt his warm hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mist. I won’t tell anyone about him, if we get him out. You have my word.”

Misty placed her hand over his and rubbed it appreciatively. “I know, Brock. But thanks for saying it.”

“No problem.” Brock started forward again, but Misty stopped him. He peered back at her in the gloom with a frown. “What?”

“Shh. Listen. Do you hear that?” In the absence of their splashing footsteps Misty thought she could hear voices up ahead.

“I think I do,” Brock whispered a moment later. “Are we close?”

“I think so.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“Sort of.”

“Well you’re one step ahead of me, then. What is it?”

Misty unclipped Totodile’s ‘Ball from her ‘Belt and summoned him, attempting to keep the light hidden beneath her jacket. Brock blinked away spots before commenting.

“What are you going to do with him? Pretend he’s a sewer alligator?”

“If it works,” Misty answered seriously, and lowered him gently into the water. He cooed at her and immediately swam in a small circle to adjust to the cold, tiny body gliding fluidly along the surface of the water just like his more primitive relatives. Brock stared at him.

“You’re kidding.”

“You have a better idea?” When Brock didn’t respond, she plowed on. “I think whoever they’ve got guarding him in here will be terrified enough of their charge to think rationally about the existence of sewer alligators. It could work.”

Brock snorted. “Well what if it doesn’t?”

“Well...I always have Gyarados.”

Brock shook his head. “You’re insane, Misty. This is never gonna work.”

“Shut up. It might. Now come on—quietly.”

Together they sloshed as silently as they could toward the voices, Totodile sliding smoothly through the water beside them. “You know,” Brock whispered a short while later, “he actually is kinda creepy like that. I think he looks more like a fat snake than an alligator though.”

“Well whatever works,” Misty whispered back. “Here, I think this is far enough. Totodile, you know what I want you to do, right? Just lead them around in circles if they chase you. If they don’t, lead them toward the entrance, okay? And whatever you do don’t let them catch you. Understand?”

“Dile, totodile.” When he grinned his pointed teeth flashed eerily in the dim light. Brock leaned forward and stopped him from swimming off.

“Wait. What if they come this way? There’s no way they can miss us.”

“We took the long way in. Hopefully they’ll freak and run straight out of here or try to catch him, since Totodile are fairly rare. Either way, I’ve always got back-up.” She unclipped Gyarados’s ‘Ball and held it up for him to see. He shook his head.

“This is all really, uncomfortably shaky. I don’t like it.”

“Me neither, but it’s all I’ve got. Your Pokémon aren’t any good down here, are they?”

“No, not for more than a few minutes. Still.” He sighed. “Well, whatever. I’m in this now whether I like it or not. Go on, boy. Give it your best.”

“Dile.” Totodile flipped his tail once, then slithered off and rounded a corner. A moment later there was a clatter, a splash, and a man’s surprised yelp. Misty and Brock leaned close to the slime-covered wall in an attempt to make out the short, clipped conversation that ensued, but the echoes blurred the words into an incomprehensible slur that faded after a moment into nothingness. Misty's breathing quickened. What was going on?

There was a sudden loud sloshing sound that grew steadily louder. Brock and Misty held their breath, but the guards seemed to round some unseen corner because they didn’t appear in the same passageway and their splashing slowly faded away. Misty prayed to Mew that Totodile would make it away from them okay.

“Well that was unnaturally easy,” Brock whispered. “What now?”

“We’ve got to get Ash out. He must be right here, if those were his guards.”

“Again, unnaturally easy. Am I the only one seeing a pattern here?” Though he continued to protest, he followed Misty through the water and around the corner. They found themselves in a hall with branches all along their left side and a wide, dark hollow across from the guard’s station, which consisted of a raised platform with an inexpensive wooden table and two chairs on it, as well as a stack of books, some playing cards, a crumpled pack of cigarettes, and some opened sodas. A jacket was draped over one of the chairs; Misty recognized it as part of a regular security guard’s uniform. Nothing special, then, if the men decided to come back before they’d made their escape. Security guards didn’t carry any weapons other than their Pokémon—at least they weren't supposed to—and they weren’t specially trained in anything Misty couldn’t handle. But why such minimum security for someone they obviously thought posed an enormous threat?

“Is that it?” Brock was peering under his hand through the light that illuminated the desk. He shook his head. “This is way too easy, Misty. I don’t like it at all.”

“Come on, I think it’s across from the desk,” Misty replied, ignoring his words even as the same sense of unease flooded through her own body. She trudged through the water to the platform, shivering in the cold, and froze when she rounded the corner. Brock sloshed up beside her and froze as well. Misty could hear him suck in his breath with a hiss.

Thick floor-to-ceiling rubber bars began a foot or so in, walling off a small room about ten feet deep and twelve wide. Ash was leaning against the back wall, hunched and soaked through with icy water, his hands still cuffed behind his back. His eyes widened when he saw Misty, then narrowed as Brock came into view. He was shivering violently, his eyes completely black and his skin clammy and pale. The word demon was scratched roughly into the stone above his head, alongside a few other words in a language Misty didn’t recognize.

“W-what do you want?” he demanded, scowling and glaring furiously. His voice rose and fell with his shudders. Misty’s chest ached as she wrapped her fingers around the damp bars and stared at him, at how frail he looked. How much had they drained him before dumping him in here? Enough to prevent so much water from shot- circuiting him? Could he short-circuit? What would happen if he did?

“We’re here to help you,” Misty answered as sincerely as she could, well aware of how much Ash probably hated her right now. Brock was silent beside her, though she could hear his breathing pick up. “Please let us help you. We don’t have much time, and this water is—it’s killing you, isn’t it?”

“W-what do you care?” Ash spat out, and stiffened as a violent shudder rolled through him. “You’re just like the rest. You—” He gasped and jerked suddenly, like he was undergoing a minor seizure. Misty cried out for him, watching helplessly as a short burst of electricity ran over his body and through the water, making Misty’s already numb calves tingle unpleasantly. When it was done he slumped limply and panted, head hung weakly.

“Ash, listen to me,” Misty pleaded desperately. “My Totodile’s distracting your guards, but only for a little while. We have to get you out of here now, or—”

“Or what?” Ash interrupted, his voice harsh. “This is how my father went, you know. Just like this. All this damned water...ugh.” He groaned and slouched against the wall. “Water...And people.” He spat the word out like a curse. “Mew, I’d hoped to be at least his age when I went, but since when has what I want mattered? Mom’ll be sad for a while, but she’ll get over it, just like she got over Dad...” He chuckled, then coughed, then chuckled again, though his grin lacked any trace of warmth or humor. “Drowned. Drowned! Didn’t even have the decency to let him short himself out. Oh no...” Another seizure-like shudder wracked his body and a crackle of energy popped over him. Misty was terrified for him; he looked delirious, and the water was only making him worse. If they didn’t get him out of it soon...

“He’s not gonna make it,” Brock said quietly. “Misty, look at him. He’ll never...Mew. He’s never gonna make it.”

“I’m not just going to give up, Brock,” Misty whispered forcefully, her mind on how soon the guards would be returning to their post, Totodile or no. Her pinkish-white knuckles gripped the bars painfully tight.

“I know,” Brock agreed, “me neither. But that water...I can’t carry him out, you know.”

“I know. Maybe...”



“No way. Her legs are way too short. She’ll go out immediately, and she’ll never be able to support him.”

“Well what, then? Gyarados is too big to move through the passages, all of my other Pokémon are too small, and yours won’t last more than a few minutes.”

Before Brock could respond there was a flash and a loud, fearful whinny as Haraia appeared on the other side of the bars. At the same time Ash yelped and fell to his knees, barely able to keep his drooping head above the water as another wave of electricity cracked and popped all around him. Misty noticed it rush through her soaked jeans with barely more than a distracted shudder.

“Haraia, what are you doing?” she cried, terrified for the Fire-Type. The water came up to her underbelly; the flames on her legs and tail were completely submerged, and she was smoking in huge black bellows. Haraia whinnied again and reared, her rolling, frightened eyes on Ash. Then there was a blinding flash that made Misty look away. When her eyes adjusted to the light she openly gaped; Haraia’s horn was growing.

“Mew, she’s Evolving!” Brock gasped. “Can she do that? How can she do that?”

Misty was just as surprised; she had no idea Haraia was at so high a Level. But Evolving below the required Level through willpower alone was nearly impossible...

A moment later she stood at at least sixteen hands, if Misty remembered horse-heights correctly. The bottom of her nose was level with Misty’s chin, which was a huge difference from just a few minutes ago, when the top of her head had scarcely brushed Misty’s waist. Now only the flames around her hooves and knees were submerged. Haraia snorted when the tip of her tail brushed the water’s surface and flicked it out of harm’s way, then approached Ash and nudged his head out of the water with her nose. She snorted into his mussed hair and he looked up at her blearily, black eyes glazed.

“Haraia? What...” His head threatened to droop again. Haraia snorted worriedly and nudged him backwards so that his back was resting against the wall, then turned to an astonished Brock and Misty and bared her teeth with a high-pitched whinny, startling them both out of their stupor. Brock immediately went for his ‘Belt.

“What are you doing?”

“These rubber bars are made for Electrics. Geodude should be able to break them, or at least bend them.”

“Hurry, then.” Misty glanced anxiously down the passageway as Brock and Geodude went to work. There was a grunt and a loud snap and Geodude backed away from the bars with the remains of two in his hand. He’d created a gap large enough for Haraia to slip through. Misty immediately rushed inside with Brock hot on her heels.

Ash’s skin was cool to the touch, and a jolt of fear swept through Misty as she saw how unevenly he was breathing. It was quickly followed by a small electric shock that made her flinch. He really didn’t have much time. Did Gary want him to die in here? Didn’t he have any idea what effect water could have on certain Electric-Types? Or had he actually planned it this way?

“Help me lift him onto Haraia,” Brock instructed, and hefted him up into a half-standing position, pausing only long enough to shudder as Ash unintentionally shocked him. Ash watched him through half-lidded eyes, making no move to object. Misty took him by the other arm, Haraia crouched, and together the three managed to heave him onto the Rapidash’s back, though he nearly slipped off the other side again as soon as he was up. Misty held him in place as he shifted, obviously uncomfortable.

“The handcuffs,” Brock panted, shirt soaked from Ash’s waterlogged jacket. “Geodude, can you...?”

Geodude made his way behind Ash, gently took the tiny ‘cuffs in his large, stony hands, and pinched. The chain broke in two between his fingers, and Ash’s arms swung down to weakly grip Haraia’s sides, his wrists red and a little swollen under his dripping bandages. Haraia took one step toward the bars and immediately halted when Ash threatened to slide off her back again. He was only grasping at a thin strand of consciousness now, and was clearly unable to hold himself up.

“Get up there with him,” Brock instructed. Misty nodded and accepted his boost up, settling onto Haraia’s back right in front of him. Brock arranged him so that he was leaning against Misty’s back, his arms in her lap in case he began to fall again.

“Is this all right?” she asked Haraia. “Is this too much for you?” Haraia snorted and shook out her crackling mane, which Misty took as a no. She nudged Ash with her shoulder. “Are you okay, or do you want to sit in front of me?” His only response was to eye her wearily and grunt something inaudible. Misty asked him to repeat it.

“I’m okay,” he grumbled, and leaned his head against her shoulder. “Just go. Please, just—go.” He shivered and Misty felt another electric pulse pop through her. Ash grunted. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay, it doesn’t hurt,” Misty lied. “Hold on, okay? Tighter.” She felt a thrill go through her as he wrapped weak, trembling arms around her waist. She wondered briefly if it was because he was an Elemental, or because he was Ash. A moment later Haraia jerked as she started slowly forward. Brock walked through the water beside them, one hand on Ash’s back to steady him as his other hooked Geodude’s now-occupied ‘Ball back to his ‘Belt.

Progress was slow through the deep water, and it wasn’t long before Misty was shivering as well. The cold air caught on the water that seeped from Ash’s soaked clothes into hers and made her tremble, as well as the sporadic shocks that coursed out from his body and into hers and Haraia’s. Brock noticed them trembling and commented.

“Are you all right? Wanna switch me places?”

“I’m okay. I think I should have sat behind him though.” Ash was slumped against her back, unconscious now, arms wrapped loosely around her waist as he struggled to breathe properly.

“Too late now,” Brock said. “How much longer, do you think...?”

He didn’t need to finish his question. Misty’s anxiety had grown in leaps and bounds at the apparent silence that surrounded them. “They’ve probably found out he’s gone,” she said after a moment’s hesitation, “but I don’t think they’ll know where to go. Maybe they won’t come this way at all...”

As if on cue, the soft echo of voices could be heard reverberating off the walls around them. Haraia halted with a snort, Brock beside her, and everyone strained their ears as terror and apprehension washed through them in waves. If they were caught now, doing this...Being expelled was the least of Misty’s worries.

“They’re coming from in front of us!” Brock hissed suddenly, and turned to Misty, eyes wide in Haraia’s flickering firelight. “They’ll see her flames any minute now! What should we do?”

Haraia nickered before Misty could respond, and shook her head with a snort. She jerked forward, then back again, forcing a startled Misty to grab her neck and struggle to keep from sliding off.

“Haraia! What—” She did it again, and comprehension dawned on Misty. “She wants to run,” she told Brock wonderingly.


“This is the only way out, Brock, and well, think about it. What would you do if a flaming horse came barreling down on you suddenly?”

“Misty, I really don’t think that’s a good idea—”

Haraia jerked again. Misty grabbed Ash’s limp elbows and pulled them around her tightly, shivering pleasantly when another thrill rolled through her at his nearness, this one barely fringed with electricity. Then she clutched his arms firmly and leaned forward, trying to find a better balance.

“I don’t see any other choice, Brock, and we have to get Ash out of here now. We can’t take some side tunnel and wander for hours until they go away. If they chase us I’ll call on Gyarados or someone to scare them off—”

There was a splash from behind them suddenly. Brock and Misty jumped, but Haraia stayed put, one ear twisted backwards. Misty couldn’t see well without turning around and dumping Ash into the water.

“Brock, what—”

“It’s Totodile! Don’t worry, he’s okay, just tired. But that means the guards...”

There was a moment of frightened silence between them as the voices ahead grew steadily louder. Then Misty said firmly, “It’s this way or that way, Brock. I say we make a break for it. You take a side tunnel until they pass you, if they even do after they see us, and I’ll meet you—”

“Nevermind, I’ll come to you,” Brock interrupted, and held Totodile up so he could disappear back inside his ‘Ball. “Just go. There’s nothing else we can do here. I’ll find you later, okay?”

“All right.”

“And Misty?”

Misty patted Haraia’s quivering back as another flood of electricity surged through them. “Yeah?”

Brock’s eyes were worried as they met her own. “Be careful, okay? And make sure Ash doesn’t fall, or this whole thing will be for nothing.”

“What happened to the evil Elemental?” Misty teased, desperately stalling for time. Brock offered her a weak smile.

“I’m just returning an old favor, that’s all.”

Misty’s mind raced at his statement. She opened her mouth to ask him what meant, but before anything came out he lightly slapped Haraia’s shoulder and urged her to get moving. She lurched away from him with a jerk, and it was all Misty could to do to keep herself and Ash from flying off as she slowly picked up speed.

Rapidash were supposed to be much smoother rides than ordinary horses, according to her studies. Misty had never appreciated that bit of apparently useless information as much as she did now. She and Ash jerked wildly over Haraia’s bare back as the Pokémon forced her hooves through the water, muscles straining under her damp off- white coat as freezing water splashed up and over Misty’s legs on both sides. She could only thank Mew she wasn’t on an actual horse, because Haraia was more than jerky enough.

It wasn’t long before bright lights were visible ahead. Misty heard startled voices, then blinked away spots as Pokémon were released. A flashlight was raised, blinding her. People began to shout. Misty heard Gary Oak’s startled voice rise above the others.

“It’s Waterflower! Stop her!”

Another series of flashes as more Pokémon were summoned, and then Haraia lowered her head and, horn leveled at the throng, breached the first of them. Misty blinked as flames roared to life all around her. Now she could clearly see Gary Oak and at least ten other men crowding the tunnel, surrounded by a horde of snarling Pokémon.

Tackle her!” Gary cried frantically. “Get them off that horse!

Misty wrapped her arms tightly around Haraia’s neck, pinning Ash’s arms between her stomach and thighs. Something struck her knee on the right; Haraia jerked to the left under its weight, nearly throwing her and Ash, but plowed on, knocking something out of her way with a toss of her horn. Another small body dug a set of claws deep into Misty’s left thigh and growled, but another wave of electricity slipped from Ash then and it fell away with a pained howl. Misty gasped at the surge’s intensity, then again as she felt Ash’s arms tighten around her.

“Sorry,” he said thickly, and shifted so that he could see behind them. Misty’s stomach lurched at the sudden shift in their position.

“Ash, don’t—”

“If you follow us, I’ll use this water to fry every last one of you!” he yelled harshly, his voice rough and gravelly. He turned back an instant later and cursed. “Gary’s mounting his Dodrio. He’ll be on us in minutes; they can lift their legs over the water.”

“Well what do we do, then?” Misty demanded, frightened. She was out of ideas.

“We find deeper water. Turn here, girl.” He patted Haraia’s flank and the Rapidash immediately pitched to the right. The tunnel they turned into was devoid of any light, and she was forced to rely on her own flames to keep from slamming into an unforgiving stone wall.

“Where are we going?” Misty was shivering, soaked through and freezing cold. It felt like they were now going against a small current.

“To the lake,” Ash answered gruffly, then jerked. Misty shuddered as another, more powerful wave of current flooded through her; Haraia shivered as well, her muscles twitching like she was trying to scare off a swarm of flies. Ash sucked in a deep breath and leaned weakly against Misty again. “I’m really sorry,” he apologized, voice frail and scratchy now, then shuddered again, sparking. Misty’s clammy skin was beginning to go numb beneath the constant current. “Raikou, I can’t...They just won’t stop...” His voice cracked, and Misty felt real fear for him course through her. Haraia lurched from side to side as she took more side passages; Misty hoped she knew where she was going.

“You’re your own homing beacon, Ash!” Gary called out suddenly. Misty could hear his Dodrio’s hurried splashing as it worked to close the gap between them. “You can’t honestly expect to lose me!”

“Ash, what are we going to do?” Misty whispered anxiously. “You don’t have much time, and he—”

Ash lowered his forehead to her shoulder and said quietly, “Just make sure Haraia keeps going down. They know we’re coming.”


“The—just—” He sighed heavily and shivered again. “They’ll come for us. Keep going.”

The black water, which had been well below Misty’s feet at first, was now threatening to envelop her ankles. Haraia struggled through it, her pale coat damp with sweat. Misty jumped suddenly when she felt something slide past her leg. Ash sighed in relief, but Misty didn’t like the thought of some unknown creature swimming around just out of her sight.


“Stop now, Haraia, before it gets too deep.” Ash lifted his head to acknowledge a pair of emotionless black eyes watching them from beneath a set of glittering red jewels. The creature slid fluidly beneath the water and disappeared, leaving nothing more than the tiniest ripple in its wake.

Gary cried out suddenly. Haraia turned, trembling with exhaustion, just in time for Misty to see Gary’s Dodrio fall over with a splash and a terrified cry, surrounded by half a dozen small, shiny blue shells. Misty gasped.

“Are those Tentacruel?”

“Mmm,” Ash grunted against her back, “too big. They can’t fit in here.”

“Then what—”

“The younger Tentacool hunt in packs. Gary should have known better than to follow us down here—” He paused when another bolt shot through him, powerful enough to make Haraia sway from side to side uneasily. He slumped against Misty’s back as it subsided, unconscious again. This time Misty shivered in fear.

Gary broke out of the water gasping and cursing. He pushed himself to his feet, the dark water lapping at his waist, and flipped sopping brown hair from his face, eyes blazing as he reached for his PokéBelt. A single small, thin tentacle snaked out of the water just behind him and wrapped leisurely around his wrist, making him jump. He whirled around and kicked out at the water, then tore at the tentacle. Another appeared behind him, then another. He swore loudly and spun from side to side, desperately trying to undo the one tightening around his wrist as more rose up to join it. Behind him Misty could see a swirl of crimson liquid bubble up from where the Dodrio had disappeared, dragged under the water flapping and screaming.

Dammit!” Gary cursed in frightened frustration. He stabbed at his ‘Belt and Misty caught a glimpse of something large and red before it slipped beneath the water. A moment later an enormous pincer shot out of the darkness and sliced one of the tentacles binding Gary in two. “Get ’em all, Kingler!” he instructed it, madly unwinding the severed tentacle from his chest. It left a small hole in his shirt where it had stung him.

Misty jumped in surprise when she felt something cold and slightly squishy nudge her leg. She looked down sharply to see at least five variously sized Tentacool watching her, half-submerged in the water. Ash shifted suddenly against her back.

“Get my mom,” he mumbled to them, then stiffened. “She’s okay, isn’t she?” he asked Misty worriedly. “They didn’t go after her? They didn’t—”

“She’s fine,” Misty reassured him. She could feel the muscles in his arms and chest relax.

“Okay. Go get her. Follow them, Haraia. And—” He hesitated. Misty felt him lift his head to study Gary for a moment, then set it back down on her shoulder with a heavy sigh, his chest rumbling against her back with his next few words. “Don’t kill him. Let him go. Let his Pokémon go too; the Dodrio is more than enough. All right?” The Tentacool flashed their eyes and sank soundlessly beneath the water. A moment later Gary was released. He shouted triumphantly and whirled to face Ash and Misty, then paled when he met the eyes of over a dozen hostile Tentacool floating in the water between them. He glared at Ash, obviously expecting some sort of order when the Pokémon didn’t immediately rush in to Attack him, but Misty could tell by the way Ash was slumped against her that he had lost his hold on consciousness again.

She cleared her throat and sat up a little straighter. “They won’t Attack you if you leave now,” she told him evenly, forcing more power into her voice than she felt. The Tentacool didn’t look too happy with that arrangement; more and more were joining the churning red water over the Dodrio. Gary followed Misty’s eyes and winced.

“You’ll pay for that one, Waterflower. You and that Elemental both.” His threats weren’t nearly as daunting when he was dripping wet and retreating, Misty couldn’t help but notice. “This isn’t over yet!” he shouted ruthlessly. “You know it isn’t! Just try to graduate after this! I’ll have you imprisoned!”

Misty watched grim-faced as he recalled his Kingler and sloshed back the way he'd come, flicking on a flashlight as soon as he disappeared from the ring of light created by Haraia’s flames. Misty shivered in a combination of the chill air and another flood of electricity from Ash. She patted Haraia’s quivering neck soothingly. The Rapidash was tossing her head at the pair of Tentacool approaching her. Misty felt her Pokémon’s terror keenly; she was a Water Trainer, and even she was a little unnerved by their blank eyes and slimy, glistening shells. She couldn’t imagine the natural horror a Fire Pokémon might feel surrounded by Water-Types and half-submerged in water to begin with. She mentally promised Haraia the best care she could possibly give her if they managed to escape from this mess unscathed.

“It’s all right, girl,” she told the horse softly. “They’ll get us both out of this water, okay? They’re here to help Ash.” Ash shifted slightly against her, moaning and rolling his head along her back until his other cheek was pressed against her opposite shoulder, but he didn’t wake up. Misty was glad. His shocks had left her body cold and numb; she could only imagine the way he must have felt. At least he was a little more stable now that he was out of the water. A little.

The Tentacool glanced wistfully at the gory red water as they passed it, then led them through a side tunnel not twenty feet back the way they’d come. Misty winced and patted Haraia’s neck as the Rapidash was forced to wade through the blood. She knew the Dodrio had been Gary’s Pokémon, but still...

The water eventually dipped back to its original level, and the Tentacool disappeared in a flurry of bubbles. Misty watched it zoom out of sight behind her, startled, then caught sight of a Poliwag bouncing up and down in the water just in front of them. Haraia snorted and shook out her mane, then began following this more land-based Pokémon as it led them through corridors with less and less water in them.

It wasn’t long before Haraia’s hooves were striking damp stone, and the Poliwag was replaced by a Rattata/rat mix. It was larger than an ordinary rat but smaller than a Rattata, with light purplish-grey fur and a thick, hairless tail that curled a bit at the tip. It waddled awkwardly ahead of them through countless passages and around a maze or corners for what felt like hours. Misty was slowly drifting off on Haraia’s back as the adrenaline that had been surging through her system since early that morning slowly seeped out of her bloodstream. She had no idea what she was going to say in her own self-defense when she went back up to the Stadium again, but she was relieved enough to be alone after Gary’s pursuit that she couldn’t bring herself to care just yet.

Haraia startled her awake when they reached the empty grooves Ash had lit for her just two days before, their empty patterns flickering eerily in Haraia’s firelight. Misty checked her watch, the one she had strapped on with the rest of her ‘Gear after Brock had helped her escape from Rudi’s suite, and stared. It had hardly been half an hour since they’d gotten rid of Gary.

Haraia picked up her pace. The Rattata mix looked up as she passed, then melted back into the shadows along one wall. Misty assumed Haraia knew where she was going; it made her wonder exactly what Ash had done with her before he’d given her to Misty.

A while later she stopped at a thick wooden door, one Misty recognized as the entrance to Ash’s secret home. He was still unconscious against her, presumably asleep now that his breathing had finally evened out. Misty was wondering quizzically how she was going to get him in there when the door burst open on its own.

Delia Ketchum flew out in a flurry or fear and worry. Her eyes widened when she caught sight of Ash’s haggard form and Misty’s weary, pale demeanor. She rushed over to them with a cry of elation at their safety and immediately began tugging Ash down from Haraia’s back.

“Um, Delia,” Misty began, “are you sure you should—”

“Mr. Slate!” Delia called through the door suddenly, staggering under Ash’s dead weight. “If you could get out here and help me, please!”

Misty’s eyes widened in shock as a wet-haired Brock appeared in the doorway, dressed in an unfamiliar black long-sleeved shirt and dark jeans that he’d rolled up around his bare feet. He met her eyes, just as surprised as she was, and shrugged, then rushed over to help support Ash. Together he and Delia managed to get him inside while Misty climbed stiffly down from Haraia’s back, thanked the Pokémon thoroughly, and recalled her, hoping she’d find rest inside her ‘Ball until she could be treated in a Center. Then she followed Brock and Delia inside.

They were carefully lying Ash down on a prepared pile of blankets and pillows in the same corner that the Charizard had occupied on Misty’s previous visit there. Said Pokémon was watching from the high arched doorway to their left; the young Charmander peeked out from around its neck curiously. Delia didn’t seem to notice it while Brock avoided it altogether. Ash stirred and groaned when they propped up his head with a pillow.

“Will he be all right?” Misty asked worriedly, shooting Brock a questioning glance. He shrugged again and sat back on his bare heels while Delia began stripping Ash’s soaked jacket from his arms. The sleeves kept getting caught on the remains of his handcuffs.

“I don’t know,” she answered distractedly. “They’ve nearly shorted him out, it looks like.” She yelped when a small surge of electricity leapt from Ash’s body to hers. “What in the world...”

“He’s been doing that since we found him,” Misty told her, kneeling beside the older woman anxiously. “That was a weak one compared to some of the others, but they’re never steady. I thought at first they were losing strength, but they seem so random...I thought once I got him out of the water...”

Delia eyed her sharply. “The water? What about the water?”

“Well I learned how water can short-circuit Electric-Types, so I tried to keep him out of it as much as I could, but I don’t know how long he was in it before—”

“Nonsense,” Delia cut her off, and began inspecting Ash more thoroughly. “They must have done something to him.”

Misty was confused. She felt Brock lean in curiously over her shoulder and frowned. “But I thought the water—”

“Water’s only dangerous to Electric-Types if they’re unable to control their own current, which Ash is more than capable of doing. How do you think he bathes? And he practically lives in that lake, for goodness sake. Lets the damn water seep in much further than his father ever did...”

Now Misty was extremely confused. “Well maybe...I don’t know...” Any relief she’d felt at getting Ash to someone with medical experience was quickly vanishing. She’d thought he was so weak because of the water, but if that wasn’t it...

“Is it these things?” Brock asked suddenly. He reached around Misty and tapped a cracked handcuff on Ash’s raw wrist. His gloves were gone and the bandage he’d wrapped there before was frayed and torn, revealing shallow cuts in his skin where the metal had dug into it.

“The handcuffs? No.” Delia resumed checking his body for anything unnatural.

“Well Misty told me they like, shocked him with them somehow. Something about negative current. Could that have done something?”

Misty and Brock watched Delia worriedly. She stopped at his words and turned to examine the metal bands more closely. Ash sparked again suddenly, and the trio watched in surprise as the handcuffs seemed to alight dimly from within as the current flowed through them. It had barely cackled out when Delia sprang into action.

“Charizard, I need your claws,” she called over her shoulder, and ushered Brock and Misty to the foot of the makeshift bed to give him room. The lizard stepped beside Ash’s head and studied the cuffs closely with a single emerald eye, then leaned down and ran its long, pebbled tongue over the one on his left wrist. As soon as it touched the metal it jerked its head back as if burned, nearly tossing the baby Charmander from its shoulders. Delia watched it worriedly as it shook its head and smacked its thick lips disagreeably.

“Well? Can you get them off of him?”

The Charizard blinked once at her, slowly, then leaned over and gently ran an experimental claw over the band. Hesitating only a moment, it quickly flicked its claw between the metal and Ash’s wrist and sliced it in two. It repeated the process on its mate, almost too quickly for Misty to see. Ash shuddered violently as soon as the treated metal fell free. His head thrashed on the pillow as if he was having a nightmare. A moment later he was still and quiet again. Everyone watched him worriedly, unsure or what to do next. Then his eyelids flickered and he groaned. Delia was crouched over his head immediately, methodically smoothing his matted black hair over his forehead and murmuring motherly phrases in his ear.

“Sweetie, it’s okay now, you’re okay. You’re safe here, and Oak’s far above us and those horrible handcuffs are gone and you’ll be just fine now...”

She broke off with a tearful smile as Ash’s eyes cracked open. He studied his mother with a mixture of confusion and weariness, his eyes regaining the barest hint of chocolate deep within the black, and frowned. “Mom? What...Where...The Tentacool...”

Delia shushed him. “It’s all right, dear, they found me. I was in the tunnels trying to find my way down here. You’re safe now, so just relax and you should be okay again...”

He sighed, his muscles visibly loosening, then caught sight of Brock and Misty and stiffened again. He stared at them in confusion for a moment, as if wondering why they were there, then blinked and let his head sink back into the pillows again, obviously too exhausted to care. He looked at his mother and croaked, “How long—”

“A while,” she said firmly, and wiped some of the stale sweat from his forehead. “But first I want you to change out of these freezing clothes. After that I don’t want to see you step foot out of your bed until tomorrow afternoon, at the earliest.”

What?” he protested. “With Gary after me and everything? Are you insane?”

"Don’t you dare try to argue your way out of this," Delia reprimanded him sharply. "He won’t get down here. Charizard, dear, if you could fetch Ash some dry clothes...”

The Charizard met her eyes, then turned to the Charmander clinging to its shoulder. The young Pokémon squealed happily, slipped down from its parent’s neck, and scurried from the room. Delia focused on Misty and Brock then, the former of whom met her eyes apprehensively.

“You two go into that room there,” she instructed, pointing to the doorway the Charizard had been standing in before. A full-grown Feraligatr was there now, watching the scene curiously. “On the other side of it a comfortable sitting room. Wait for me in there.”

“But—Ash—” Misty was unwilling to leave him. “Will he be okay?” She glanced at him again. His eyes were half-closed and his breathing heavy; he was obviously unaware of anything around him. Misty had never seen him look so vulnerable.

“He should be fine,” Delia told her firmly. “They very nearly drained him with that God-awful device, but now that it’s off he should be all right. Please, Misty, don’t argue with me. Just wait for me in there; I shouldn’t be long.”

Misty felt a tug on her shoulder and looked up to meet Brock’s dark eyes. “Come on, Mist,” he said quietly. “You heard her; he’ll be fine. Now come on...” He helped her to her feet and steadied her when her stiff legs threatened to give under her weight, then helped her from the room. They both looked back over their shoulders as they left, Misty with open relief on her face and Brock with an unreadable expression. When Ash’s prone form disappeared around the corner Misty held Brock’s eyes with her own, wordlessly demanding answers. Brock sighed and ran a hand through his short, thick hair.

“Well?” Misty prompted when he didn’t say anything. She followed him into the sitting room she remembered passing through before and sank down beside him on a thick, dusty cushion set up in front on the floor in front of an even dustier couch. Brock glanced at her, then looked hurriedly away at the glint in her eyes.

“Well what?”

“You know exactly what!” Misty steamed. “'Returning an old favor?' What was that supposed to mean? And how did you get down here before me? What’s going on with you?”

“Jeez, Misty! Nothing! There’s nothing going on! Almost as soon as you galloped off I was surrounded by a bunch of angry-looking Water Pokémon, all right? I didn’t have anything on me but Rock, so they sort of herded me off somewhere. Well, I ended up being herded here. I came in from a different way than you did, though; I had to swim for a while, and before I knew it that Charizard was hauling me up out of the water and onto some stone stairs, and Delia was there, looking all worried. I don’t know. She gave me dry clothes to wear and as soon as I changed you guys appeared, and I don’t know what the hell is going on here, so why don’t you start answering some of my questions?” His eyes took on a steely glint while he talked, but Misty wasn’t backing down. She refused to lower her eyes when he glared.

“No. You first. Do you know Ash somehow? You told me you didn’t!”

“And I thought I didn’t!” Brock’s reply was as forceful as Misty’s accusation. “I didn’t know he was the Phantom! Mew!”

“What do you mean, you didn’t know? What are you talking about?”

Brock’s eyes lost a bit of their fervor. He lowered them and shifted on the lumpy cushion while Misty continued to glare. After a moment of tense silence he looked at her and sighed. “I’m telling the truth, Misty. I had no idea he was the Phantom. But...I do recognize him.”

Mist’s glare switched to a look of astonishment. “You do? From where?”

“Around,” Brock shrugged. “I dunno. I used to see him all the time, down in the Rock-Type’s cave. You don’t go in there much, do you?” Misty shook her head. She had no need to. She spent a lot of time in the Water- Type’s area; a huge pool for the Pokémon to exercise in with islands dotted here and there for the Trainers. She’d only been in the Rock-Type’s deep, interlacing series of caverns a few times, and always with Brock by her side. She was surprised Ash would go in there—unless maybe the tunnels were connected to his underground domain somehow. She made a mental note to ask him later, thankful now that there would be a later.

“‘All the time’?” she reiterated. “What was he doing?”

Brock shrugged again. “The caves are almost always filled with Trainers and their Pokémon; non-Rocks can use them to Train and stuff too, so it’s always crowded at certain times of the day, like right before lunch and stuff. I used to see him a lot when it was crowded.”

“Well what was he—”

“I don’t know, Misty! Training, I guess, just like everyone else! I didn’t pay any attention to him at first— why would I have? Then one night I was there late—you remember that, don’t you? When that smaller cave collapsed on me?”

“You mean that time when you were fifteen? Of course I do. What about it?”

“Well I told you Onix got me out, right?” He shifted uncomfortably. “Well...I kinda lied. Onix was too young to lift anything really heavy back then, and I was stuck between these two huge rocks that he could barely budge. I thought I was gonna have to wait until someone came to Train in the morning to get me out, and I didn’t think I had enough air to last that long. I waited hours before, well, before Ash showed up. I felt the ground shift and a group of Dugtrio just came up right underneath me. Ash crawled up after them and told me to follow him out, all nonchalantly and stuff. By the time I was through the other end and out of the rocks he was gone again, and I haven’t seen him since.”

Misty stared at him. “Are you serious? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know. I think he asked me not to tell anyone. I was kind of out of it.” He looked sheepishly at Misty. “I’m sorry. I thought I imagined the whole thing for the longest time. I mean, I just went straight to bed afterwards, and when I came back the next morning there was no sign of the Dugtrio tunnel. I tried looking for Ash again when the place was crowded, but I could never find him, so...” He shrugged. “I forgot about it. As soon as I saw him in that cage thing, though, I knew he was the one who'd helped me out of there. But really, I mean, I didn’t even know his name, and no one I asked knew either, so I just forgot. I remember thinking it was weird that he wore sunglasses though, since it was dark where I was stuck, and it was late at night. Kinda funny, huh?” He offered Misty a tentative smile.

“So you believe me, then? You don’t think he’s some horrible monster either?”

Brock shook his head. “Not anymore. I think you’re right about him, Misty, and I want to help him too. I’ll bet a lot of Trainers here have seen him around, you know? If he did that for me, and all that stuff for you...Why just the two of us? He’s probably helped loads of people here, and they just don’t know it.” His dark-eyed gaze grew worried suddenly. “But what happened to you guys? You look almost as bad as he does, and Haraia looked exhausted.”

Delia shuffled through the door before Misty could reply. Her aqua eyes caught sight of a familiar yellow ball of fur and she gasped, lurching to her feet in surprise.

“Pikachu! How did you—”

“The headMasters didn’t seem to think he was much of a threat,” Delia replied for him. The mouse was sitting in her arms draped in two PokéBelts—Ash’s PokéBelts, Misty realized with a start. He looked unhappy about something. “He says they stuck him in a regular Pokéball and left him,” Delia explained. “He only just managed to sneak away. And now he’s going to show you two back to your rooms, isn’t he?”

Pikachu glared at her as Misty cried out a disbelieving “What?” The mouse burst into a string of angry chatter, his ears flat against his skull. Misty picked out the words “Ash,” “hurt,” and “help,” before Delia cut him off.

“He’s fine and you know it,” she snapped, lowering him to the floor. “Now take these two up to the Stadium before someone notices they’re missing or we’ll have a real problem on our hands.”

“But they already know we’re missing,” Misty reminded her. “I ran into Gary just a little while ago. He doesn’t know about Brock, but—”

“Aren’t you dating that young Trovita boy?” Delia asked her suddenly. Misty fell silent, stunned by the unexpected question, and Delia seized the opportunity to continue. “He’s got a lot of influence over the headMasters, and didn’t you tell me he thought Ash bewitched you somehow?”

“Well—yes, but—”

“Use that,” she said firmly. Misty frowned.

“But he must know I’m gone by now. He locked me in his room hours ago—”

“Then tell him Gary broke you out; it’ll add to your story and take away from whatever he says. He’s been telling everyone you’re the evil Phantom’s puppet for weeks now, to the point that no one believes anything he says anymore. Rudi thinks you’ve been tricked, and the headMasters will side with the source of their money before their obsessed head of security. Use that.”

“But—I mean, how...” Misty had no idea Delia was so devious. If she could get Rudi on her side...He already distrusted Gary so much anyway...

“You’ll figure out something. And Brock, change clothes as soon as you get back and hide those someplace safe until Ash can come get them from you. Gary will recognize Cypress’s things instantly.” Brock looked down at his dark wardrobe curiously while Delia matched Pikachu’s glare with her own. “Take them all the way up and make sure no one’s around when they get back, all right? Then you can curl up under Ash’s shirt, for all I care; just take care of them first. Understood?” Pikachu looked away and murmured something irritably. Delia sniffed. “Good. Go on, then; I’ll expect you back in an hour or so.”

“But Delia, please, can’t we go back when Ash is better?” Misty pleaded. “Even if he’s okay, I hate to just leave him like this...”

Delia’s eyes softened as they met Misty’s. “He’ll be fine, dear, and he’d want you to go. You know he would. I promise to send him to you as soon as he’s better, all right?” Her eyes traveled from her to Brock and back again, and she smiled. “He owes you two his life, you know. He can’t say that about very many people. Now go with Pikachu, please, and pretend you have no idea what happened down here. His life depends on it.”